The Quality Most Needed

In The Actor’s Guide to Creating Character, written by William Esper & Damon DiMarco, Mr. Esper recommended that every actor read an essay by Laurette Taylor entitled “The Quality Most Needed.”

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did and find continued inspiration and truth in her thoughts. –Elaine Williams, Senior Teacher at Baron Brown Studio

downloadExcerpt from
The Quality Most Needed
by Laurette Taylor

I have been asked to discuss, for the benefit of those who may go on the stage, the qualities which are most important as elements of success. If merely the financial or popular success of a woman star is meant, I should say that beauty is more essential than magnetism. But if by success you mean all that is implied by the magical word Art – success in the sense of Bernhardt, Duse and Ellen Terry are successes – I should say most emphatically the reverse. And I should add that imagination is more important than either.

Mere beauty is unimportant; in many cases it proves a genuine handicap. Beautiful women seldom want to act. They are afraid of emotion and they do not try to extract anything from a character that they are portraying, because in expressing emotion they may encourage crow’s feet and laughing wrinkles. They avoid anything that will disturb their placidity of countenance, for placidity of countenance insures a smooth skin.

Beauty is not all-important as an asset, even when the star is not anxious to achieve true greatness. Many of our most charming comediennes are not pretty women. Rather, they are women of great charm and personality. I cannot for the moment recall a single great actress who is a beauty. At least not in the popularly accepted idea of what constitutes beauty.

Personality is more important than beauty, but imagination is more important than both of them.

Beauty as I understand it does not mean simple prettiness, but stands for something allusive and subtle. The obvious seldom charms after one has had to live close to it for any length of time. Being all on the surface, there is nothing left to exhilarate, once the surface has been explored. On the other hand, the beauty which emanates from within becomes more enchanting upon close acquaintance. It is constantly revealing itself in some new guise and becomes a continual source of joy to the fortunate persons who have the privilege of meeting it frequently.

That is beauty of the imagination, and that beauty all the really great actresses have.

The case of [Sarah] Bernhardt is as good an example as one would wish. In her youth, especially, she was the very apotheosis of ugliness; still, through the power of her rich imagination that glorified her every thought and act, she held her audiences in the hollow of her hand. It is the strength and richness of her wonderful creative mind that makes it possible for her to present the amazing illusion of youth which she does even today.

It isn’t beauty or personality or magnetism that makes a really great actress. It is imagination, though these other qualities are useful.

You see a queer little child sitting in the middle of a mud puddle. She attracts you and holds your interest. You even smile in sympathy. Why?

Simply because that child is exercising her creative imagination. She is attributing to mud pies the delicious qualities of the pies which mother makes in the kitchen. You may not stop to realize that this is what is going on in the child’s mind, but unconsciously it is communicated to you. It is the quality of imagination that has held your attention.

We create in the imagination the character we wish to express. If it is real and vital to us in imagination we will be able to express it with freedom and surety. But we must conceive it as a whole before we begin to express it.

There will be those who will disagree with me and say that magnetism presupposes imagination. This is a mistake. Many magnetic actresses are wholly lacking in imagination, their hold upon the public resting chiefly upon personality and charm and beauty. Have you ever gone to a tea party where you met some very magnetic woman who radiated charm, who not only held your attention but exhilarated you until you became impatient to see this scintillating creature on the stage, where you might realize the fullness of her wonder? And have you not felt, when your opportunity came and you saw her on the stage at last, the disappointment of realizing a wooden lady with a beautiful mask for a face, speaking faultlessly articulated lines – an actress who rose desperately to the big moments of her part, and who never for a moment let you forget that it was she, that actress, whom you saw, not the character whom she was portraying? There may have been splendid acting but you were conscious of the fact that it was acting. There was no illusion. She was conscious at the big climax that she was acting this part and that she must reach this climax. She was acting as much to herself as to you.

That is not the art of the great actress.

The imaginative actress builds a picture, using all her heart and soul and brain. She builds this picture not alone for the people out in front but for herself. She believes in it and she makes the people across the footlights believe in it. Unless she has done this she has failed. She must stimulate the imagination of the audience. An actress should not only be able to play a part; she should be able to play with it. Above all, she should not allow anything to stand between her and the thing she is expressing.

How often does an actress play a part so as to leave you with the feeling that you have so intimate a knowledge of the character that you could imagine its conduct in any position, aside from the situations involved in the action of the play? Unless this happens, you feel that after all you have seen a limited portrayal of the character and you realize that though the acting was practically flawless there was something missing. And, in nine cases out of ten, that is because the woman playing the part did not use any imagination. She was entirely bound by the tradition of the theatre.

She did everything just as it would have been done by anyone else on the stage. This is fatal.

You feel untouched by the play because it was not made real to you.

The artist looks for the unusual. She watches everyone, always searching for the unusual in clothes, in manner, in gesture. The imaginative actress will even remember that the French have characteristics other than the shrug!

Think of the number of times that there have been Irish plays, of the number of times that the Irish character has been used in the working out of a plot. Yet never, to my knowledge, has an Irishman been played on the stage.

(This excepts, of course, Lady Gregory’s players and Guy Standing’s rendition of a current Irish-American role.) Real Irishmen have never been played. The Irish can be the most melancholy people on the face of the earth, yet the traditional stage Irish have been lilting colleens and joking Paddies.

The most interesting thing to me in acting is the working out of the character itself, the finding of what which is uncommon and the small, seemingly insignificant trait which will unconsciously make an appeal to the audience and establish the human appeal. Too much importance is laid on clothes. In the main, I think that all clothes hamper unless they express the character. Personally, I detest ‘straight’ parts for that reason. They necessitate the clothes that make me self-conscious – or, rather “clothes conscious”.

I want to get right inside the character and act from the heart as well as from the head. That is impossible unless one is free from outside interference.

Beauty, personality, and magnetism are not important in the equipment of a star, when compared to the creative faculty of imagination. The first three qualities are valuable adjuncts, and no one should sneeze at them. But you might get along without the slightest beauty and little or no personal magnetism if you were generously endowed with the imaginative mind.